The Dunwoodie Archive:
Written by Matthew Hocker
What is the Dunwoodie Archive?:
Dunwoodie’s research was both rich and diverse. The automotive research files are stored within 64 filing cabinet drawers, span 3 centuries, and cover over 2,000 different makes and 160 coachbuilders. There are also files on miscellaneous car-related topics, such as brakes, women in automotive history, and even letterhead used by car manufacturers! His research was comprehensive; in a given file, you might find copies of period trade journal articles, later research articles, letters of correspondence, appraisal notes, etc.
Bringing the Archive into the Digital Age:
Many car files also contain index sheets, which Dunwoodie created after having spent countless hours searching through trade journals for information. Each entry contained the publication’s title, date, page number and a note on the content of the article. These index sheets are an invaluable resource, allowing us to perform more efficient searches through our vast periodical collection. To provide even better access to our patrons, we recently finished digitizing these index sheets. With over 2,000 digital files, we’d like to think Ralph Dunwoodie would be proud.
The Man Behind the Archive:
The story of the archives begins with Dunwoodie’s childhood, a period in his life which had a strong influence on his interest in automobiles. He was born in 1924 and brought home in the family’s 1917 Model T, which he later learned to drive. In 1936, he started collecting sales literature, and there was no turning back.
World War II put a hold on Dunwoodie’s aspirations. From 1942 through 1947, he served as a signalman for the U.S. Navy. During the D-Day invasion, an explosion left him injured and hospitalized for several weeks. Later in life, Dunwoodie shared his experiences with school groups and was interviewed for articles and documentaries on WWII.
After being discharged, he earned a business degree with New York University. He then moved to Hartford, Wisconsin to work for food industry giant, Libby McNeil & Libby (known today as Libby’s). Despite his profession, Dunwoodie’s love of antique cars never wavered and he earned a strong reputation among collectors for his knowledge on the subject.
His expertise caught the attention of casino tycoon and billionaire, William Harrah. In 1962, he opened Harrah’s Automobile Collection in Reno, Nevada to share his growing collection with the public. When Harrah offered Dunwoodie a job with the museum, the opportunity was accepted with open arms.
Throughout his career with the museum, Dunwoodie wore many different hats. Within a year of starting, he went from tour guide to manager. He acted as a purchasing agent and helped the collection grow from a few hundred vehicles to over 1,300. Dunwoodie also oversaw the restoration process, which was carried out by a staff of nearly 70 fulltime workers. He personally restored some of the cars in the collection, including a Metz and a Kissel. (Kissel became one of his favorite makes.)
Dunwoodie’s role as researcher proved the most important, as this informed his other responsibilities. He was meticulous with his research and turned to a wide variety of resources for help: manuals, sales literature, period trade journal articles, etc. By taking a comprehensive approach, Dunwoodie knew what to look for when restoring or acquiring cars for the collection so that they might be “…as close to showroom new condition as possible.”
In 1975, Dunwoodie left the museum to work as an independent consultant and researcher. This included performing appraisals and answering restoration questions. When automotive historians wanted to write an article or book, they often turned to Ralph for information. Many an article in Antique Automobile credited Dunwoodie as a source. From time to time, he even wrote the magazine staff to provide corrections or mystery car identifications.
One of his most influential roles was serving as a primary consultant to Beverly Rae Kimes and Henry Austin Clark, Jr. in their groundbreaking book, the Standard Catalog of American Cars: 1805-1942. Kimes considered him a pioneer in the field, and the two frequently corresponded with one another. When looking through the files of the Dunwoodie Archives, you can sometimes find letters from Kimes.
With an unparalleled attention to detail, he also took part in judging. At one show, he was able to determine a Dodge entered as a 1915 model was in fact a 1916. Dunwoodie was able to spot the difference based on the size of brake drums; the 1915’s brake drum was 2 inches shorter. He was THAT specific.
Because of such expertise, Dunwoodie was called upon to testify in court in 1981. General Motors was facing a class action lawsuit on behalf of 1977 Oldsmobile owners whose cars contained engines produced by its Chevrolet division. The case made against GM was that this interchangeability was a form of false advertising. Dunwoodie’s task was to compile a list of automobiles equipped with engines that were made by someone other than themselves.
He performed in-depth research on engines found in all the then-current divisions of GM, tracing them as far back as 1897. He also investigated engines found in the cars of GM’s competition, Ford and Chrysler. Throughout the history of the automobile, Dunwoodie discovered it was quite common for manufacturers to use engines made by other divisions or other engine manufacturers. Despite this, GM wound up losing the case and was ordered to pay out to affected individuals.
Ralph Dunwoodie passed away in 2003 at the age of 79. He left an indelible mark in automotive history and received well-deserved recognition for his efforts in the field. In 1989, SAH bestowed upon him their highest honor, the Friend of Automotive History award. Even today, our patrons who knew Ralph always speak of him with high regard. We are honored that his legacy is able to live on here at the AACA Library.
If you would like to learn what the Dunwoodie Archives has on your favorite car, be sure to contact the AACA Library or pay us a visit. We even have his research files and transcript for the 1981 engine interchange trial. Discoveries await you at every turn!